A hospital ship could become a casualty as the Navy seeks to free more money to spend on warships, submarines and aircraft.
The Navy proposes mothballing one of its two floating hospitals -- the USNS Mercy or the USNS Comfort -- to make budgetary room to expand its fighting capabilities.
These 1,000-bed ships have provided medical care during wars and disasters since they were converted from oilers in the late 1980s. Most recently, the Comfort went to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The Navy's proposed 2019 budget of $151.4 billion would be a $12.6 billion increase over the previous year and calls for adding 46 ships to the current 280 over the next five years. For 2019, the service looks to add two submarines, three destroyers and 24 F-18 Super Hornets.
But Navy leaders say the increased production still falls short of the pace needed to meet its long-term goal of a 355-ship fleet in 30 years.
Some lawmakers have questioned the Navy's plan to retire one of the hospital ships, saying they both are needed to treat mass casualties when no hospitals ashore are available.
"We have an obligation to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and also the civilians across this world," said Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Miss., at a March 8 congressional hearing. "There will come a time when we need that and we need to always be ready."
Air Force Gen. Darren McDew, head of U.S. Transportation Command, told lawmakers that tough decisions are required even with a budget increase.
Still, the loss of a hospital ship would be felt during a crisis, when hundreds of patients would have to be airlifted to a distant hospital, he said.
"I'm a big fan of hospital ships because I love the fact that we can help injured and ill [service] members," McDew said.
Losing a hospital ship would dramatically increase needs for large aircraft to transport patients, he added.
The Mercy has mostly operated in the Pacific, and the Comfort in the Atlantic and Persian Gulf. The Comfort assisted in the aftermath of Katrina, the Haitian earthquake and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Both have operating rooms, intensive care units, burn wards and radiology facilities, as well as general medical and dental services. They each carry up to 1,200 personnel and have landing decks for airlifting patients from shore.